Chamber Music Northwest Club Concerts review: Seeking new listeners in new spaces

The summer festival’s alternative venue series brings young players to an old audience.


A vibrant chatter fills the air at Jimmy Mak’s, Portland’s premier jazz venue. People are happily eating and drinking, gaily greeting friends from across the room, holding eagerly anticipatory conversations of the evening’s imminent music. Is this the night of a Mel Brown Quintet or Bureau of Standards Big Band show? No! Surprisingly, it’s the opening night of Chamber Music Northwest’s Club Concert series. Initiated in 2010, it is a sort of alt-CMNW series, designed, according to the festival’s website, to “break down the barriers between performers and audience.”

Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project musicians performed at Portland's Jimmy Mak's Jazz Lounge. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project musicians performed at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

In conjunction with the festival’s Protégé Project, the series was intended to bring some of the most talented young musicians on the cusp of their careers into the fold, providing opportunities for mentoring with the established CMNW artists, community outreach, unique collaborations, and off-the-beaten-path repertoire. “I proposed a series of concerts to be held in venues and neighborhoods not ordinarily served by CMNW,” festival Artistic Director David Shifrin explained in an email. “Club concerts are one aspect of this effort which we hope will attract music lovers (possibly younger than our average listeners) who may be hesitant to experience our music in the somewhat more formal setting of a concert hall.”

Based upon what I observed at the club concerts this year, the program seems to be a remarkable success. It is presenting works off the beaten path from the mostly staid programming of the main stage concerts, encouraging a less formal relationship between the audience and performers, and slowly bringing in some younger patrons to what is arguably the oldest audience in classical music in Portland.

The opening concert at Jimmy Mak’s fully embraced the Portland venue’s jazz club sensibility. presenting a wide range of music, all from either the last century or the current one, all expertly performed by the ferociously talented array of young artists in the Protégé Project. This year, the concerts were emceed by Portland All-Classical FM radio on-air host Christa Wessel, who was chosen to encourage give and take between the musicians and the audience, and to break down the wall that often divides stage from auditorium. Wessel’s easy familiarity, breezy delivery, and quick reaction to events were an ideal fit for this setting.

The concert began, after some brief introductions and business from Wessel, with selections from Morton Gould’s charming work for clarinet and double bass, Benny’s Gig. Written in 1962 and performed with delightfully low-key elegance and swing by clarinetist Ashley William Smith and Samuel Suggs, double bass, it’s a work that charms at the same time that it cloys. It’s a view of jazz that has thankfully passed into obscurity — more nostalgic and naive than illuminating and vibrant.

David Lang, a New York City composer familiar to Portland audiences through his 2011 appearance with Third Angle New Music, brought the proceedings forward thirty years with Ashley William Smith’s virtuoso performance of his 1992 Press Release for bass clarinet. Smith gave some very helpful remarks before his performance of the piece, talking about the underlying structure (based upon simple mathematical formulae), some of the extended techniques (slap tongue, which requires Smith to literally slap his tongue on the reed, producing a startling pizzicato effect, and which is highly fatiguing for the performer), and the piece’s level of difficulty (“one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever learned”). Smith was very comfortable talking in front of an audience, which is relatively rare among classical musicians, and even better, capable of breaking down complicated musical concepts and techniques into language that the most green of concert goers could understand and take in.

His performance was breathtaking. The bass clarinet is not the most nimble of instruments, but Smith made it dance in Lang’s uncompromising 10 minute solo work. His keen understanding of the work’s structure made the performance easy to “signpost” as it were, each section clearly delineated, but not in an obvious or didactic way.

Composed between 1923 and 1927, Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata was heavily influenced by the craze amongst the Parisian intelligentsia for all things jazz and blues at the time. As violinist Bella Hristova explained in her conversation with Wessel before the performance, it calls for the performer to do things that might be considered “wrong” in strict classically trained practice: overly wide vibrato, bending notes out of tune, and exaggerated slides and portamento between notes. Along with pianist Daniel Schlosberg, she played a spellbinding account of this great violin sonata, bringing out the stark contrast between the mechanistic and the lyrical in the first movement Allegretto, evoking the smoky confines of a Parisian jazz club in the Blues second movement, and pulling out all the virtuoso stops for the thrilling Perpetuum Mobile finale. A winner of the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Hristova is clearly primed for a major career, which is already in its ascendance.

Protegés Suggs and Schlosberg at Jimmy Mak's. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Suggs and Smith at Jimmy Mak’s. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

After the intermission, the proceedings took a contemporary turn. Double bassist Samuel Suggs took the stage to play three of his Caprices for solo double bass. In his remarks, Suggs talked about how bass players often study and perform the solo cello suites of J.S. Bach. Each of the movements of the Bach suites is based upon Baroque dance forms. So Suggs decided to write a set of caprices as companion pieces to the Bach dance movements, but with a contemporary twist: each caprice is based upon a modern (very modern!) dance form. The first, Dub(Bass)Step, refers to the club music style that features a very fast beat, syncopated rhythms, and a “wobble bass.”

What Suggs proceeded to play quite simply boggled the mind. Audience members sat up on the edge of their seats, leaning forward (in one case, a man in the front row almost seemed in danger of actually leaning into Suggs’s bass!) to try to discern just how he was making the myriad sounds from his single instrument. The second caprice, a downtempo Chorale, was reminiscent, in its technical demands, of the great Sarabande from Bach’s D major cello suite. Suggs’s command of the long “vocal’” lines was complete, I virtually held my breath all the way to the end of this sublime, yet simple, piece. The final caprice, Daft, based upon a song by the French electronica duo Daft Punk, incorporated the technical demands of the previous two, and then upped the ante with some deft vocalizing by Suggs, all the while he played the double bass with preternatural ease. This rightfully brought the house down. These caprices are valuable additions to the double bass repertoire, and deserve to find a place in every virtuoso bassist’s performing library.

The remainder of the program was announced from the stage. Suggs returned, this time playing the piano, to introduce his arrangement of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, with Smith on clarinet, and Suggs contributing his own personal list of favorite things in a cameo vocal. It was his homage to sonata form, and beautifully done. The popular song vibe held for the remainder of the set, with “Samson” by Regina Spektor, sung with grace and allure by vocalist/trumpeter Jean Laurenz. A diptych of Dead Mouse’s “I Remember“ and Frank Zappa’s “Peaches in Regalia” followed, also expertly arranged by Suggs, and featuring the entire line up of the evening’s Protégés, with pianist Daniel Schlosberg doubling on accordion.

This concert was, for me, the perfect example of taking a non-traditional venue and making it the catalyst for innovative programming and a more participatory and audience friendly atmosphere. The performances were stellar, the musical choices interesting and varied. I only wish I’d seen some younger faces in the audience. It was hard to find any audience members under the age of 50 (which, granted, is quite young for the hard core chamber music audiences in this town), and I would imagine that this concert would have played well to audiences right down into their teens. It may be that the summer months see the exodus of a lot of the twenty-something college students who would be an obvious audience for these concerts. The lack of an intimate outdoor venue could also be a factor. Marketing, too, is a concern, especially for an organization that has little experience targeting a demographic several decades younger than its core audience.

Hipster Haunt

At the second Club Concert, held at one of the epicenters of the hipster music scene in Portland, Doug Fir Lounge, the audience was about as un-hip (definitely not an aspersion) as could have been found in this venue (at least since last year’s Club Concert was held there), and I was again wondering where the under-45 crowd was. Not that this is entirely the expressed aim of the Club Concert series.“This is the future of classical music,” series benefactor Ronni Lacroute, of Willakenzie Estate told me before the show. “I see a lot of new faces outside of the regulars that have been coming for years to the main concert series.” Certainly, this enthusiasm from one of the major philanthropic forces behind new ideas and concepts in the arts cannot be ignored.

The experience of attending a Club Concert, especially at a venue such as Doug Fir, which is about as far outside the standard concert setting as one can comfortably imagine, is definitely a different proposition than attending a run of the mill CMNW concert. At Doug Fir, the audience enters upstairs, and then after getting their wrists stamped (on this night with a cute tuxedo cat stamp), journey down the stairs into the basement level performing space. The lighting is low, and the space is striking, bringing with it echoes of David Lynch’s old TV show Twin Peaks due to the mod log cabin motif. There is a bustling bar at the back of the seating area (and seating in the center of the performance space is something that I’d guess is absent from the non-classical performances that take place there), and the confines are, well, confined. It forces an intimacy within the audience even before they take their seats. The stage, while raised, is very close to the front row of seats, and it’s well nigh impossible to be very far away from the performers, which also encourages a tighter rapport between them and the audience.

The opening work of the Doug Fir concert couldn’t have been more conventional, but it had a slight twist, as is common in these concerts. It was an oboe concerto by the Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Marcello, but in this case played by Jean Laurenz on the piccolo trumpet, with the Protégés in the Dover Quartet filling in for the orchestra. Laurenz’s pursuit of pieces that would challenge her with more lyrical content, as she told Christa Wessel during their short exchange before the performance, led her to make this transcription from the oboe original. Laurenz again proved that she is a remarkably assured trumpeter, with equal ease in the lyrical lines as in the more angular and idiomatic figurations.

O'Connor and Schlosberg at Doug Fir. Photo: Tom Emerson.

O’Connor and Schlosberg at Doug Fir. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

CMNW flutist Tara O’Connor and Protégé Schlosberg, followed with Schlosberg’s Strange Ancestors, which he said (in onstage pre-concert conversation with Wessel) was written in reaction to the typical flute and piano piece, which tends to have “a flute part that goes completely crazy in the high register, while the piano just plays boom chuck, boom chuck.” So the piano part is quite active, the flute part more meditative, spending much of its time in its lowest registers — in other words, completely inverse to the stereotypical flute and piano showpiece. It featured a couple of extended techniques for the flutist, demonstrated by O’Connor: whistle tones, which are extremely high and soft notes that sound a bit like when one blows over the mouth of a drinking straw (and, as O’Connor noted, are “very unstable”), and pizzicato, which she described as involving a very “lizard-like” use of the tongue, which extends past the lips and over the embouchure hole, then flicks back very quickly, producing a half-click, half-tone sound that is remarkably like the sound of a plucked string instrument.

These entertaining and informative demonstrations are part of what make the Club Series so engaging, and there were several questions to the artists throughout the concert from the audience — a kind of give and take that is extremely rare in the conventional concert setting. The piece itself was evocative of ancient peoples and rituals, using a simple set of sounds and materials, but never became repetitive or stale. O’Connor’s command of every register of her instrument and superb tone were evident throughout. As a chamber music performer myself, I found the give and take between O’Connor and Schlosberg – as with all of the performers on the Club Series – to be breathtakingly subtle and, well, easy. Which, in the case of this piece, which had some periods of precisely notated silences, it most certainly was not. Their performance had that element of intercommunication that bordered on the uncanny.

The Dover Quartet, fresh off its win at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition and subsequent residency at Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute of Music, next played the third String Quartet of Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann written in 1943 at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It is astounding that such an intense and moving work of art could have been made under such circumstances, but an artistic circle survived and even thrived in the camp. “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon,” Ullmann wrote. “Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”

The performance by the Dover Quartet was well-balanced, technically assured, and musically gripping, even harrowing at times. It provided a counterbalance of solemnity and profundity among a group of works which were more concerned with beauty than meaning.

The final work on the program brought an absurdist sensibility to the proceedings, wisely bringing the mood up after the brooding and dark Ullmann quartet. Bohuslav Martinu’s suite from his 1927 ballet score The Kitchen Revue (La Revue de Cuisine), brings all of the Czech composer’s crackling, motoric rhythms and tongue-in-cheek humor worthy of the subject matter: kitchen utensils in love. The performance, by the Protégés with CMNW artist Julie Feves, bassoon, was complete and unadulterated fun. The manic interjections of the turn-of-the-century Charleston dance frequently brought delighted (and vocal) audience reaction, as did the virtuosic playing by all involved.

Operatic Finale

Like the other two concerts, last Wednesday’s final Club Concert at Alberta Rose Theatre had a thematic element to its construction, and of the three, was the most cohesive in its attention to that theme. In this case, it was opera, and the audience assembled was treated to six quite different treatments of some of the most popular opera classics. This being strictly an instrumental concert, arrangements would be the order of the day, and they ranged from having been composed within this year back to the late 19th century.

The second newest arrangement opened the concert with an unusual ensemble which (David Shifrin hinted in his introductory remarks) happened to be that used by Sergei Prokofiev in his own Quintet, Op. 39: oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass: a straightforward, but skillfully done arrangement of Rossini’s overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. The performance level from the assembled Protégés was as high as ever. The two wind players had the most heavy lifting in this frothy confection. Oboist Timothy Gocklin spun both tricky passage work and long flowing lines with equal aplomb. Clarinetist Smith, attired this night in disco ball-inspired pants that may well have been visible from space, brought his usual A-game, with pyrotechnics galore. Rossini overtures often have long, harmonically repetitive sections that take place under an equally long crescendo, which presents problems in a small ensemble, where the amount of dynamic contrast simply cannot compete with the range of a full symphony orchestra, resulting in mild to moderate tedium. So, what is the beleaguered quintet to do?

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough turn to choreography! The group worked out a series of moves that both reflected what was happening musically, and also managed to be quite hilarious at the same time. The audience, which this night seemed to have a much larger proportion of younger members, got into the swing of things right away, laughing and clapping with delight at the various visual and aural goings on. Afterwards, Wessel asked Samuel Suggs, who had made the arrangement, if the arrangement had included the choreography.“No, but it includes Ashley Smith!” he replied.

Smith, now known simply by the moniker “Pants,” as coined by Wessel, came back with pianist Schlosberg to give a dazzling performance of the highly virtuosic Fantasia on La Traviata by the late 19th century composer Donato Lovregio. Again, the audience was fully on board, applauding after particularly dazzling passages, and firmly in the palm of Smith’s capable hand.

Hristova and Schlosberg at Alberta Rose. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Hristova and Schlosberg at Jimmy Mak’s. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Bella Hristova, the violinist who has consistently wowed listeners throughout the festival as a whole and in the Club Series, joined Schlosberg to play perhaps the least known of the three major violin fantasies on Bizet’s opera Carmen. Written in 1876, Jenö Hubay’s Fantasie Brillante from Carmen is equally virtuosic as the other two, perhaps, and includes three themes absent from the other versions (by Sarasate and Waxman): the Toreador March, Michaela’s Aria, and the Gypsy Dance. Hristova played with her characteristically huge, warm sound. Her trips up the entire length of the G-string were amazing in their evenness from top to bottom, and her arpeggiations dazzled. She’s a major talent, and hers will be a career to watch.

After intermission, the focus switched from arrangements and fantasias to one composer’s impressions of another’s work. Gabriel Fauré was an admirer of Richard Wagner’s music, and after a visit to Bayreuth to see the Ring cycle, he and fellow composer/pianist André Messager wrote, circa 1888, a set of pieces that took the major themes of this massive set of four operas, and then proceeded to satirize them by setting them to the low, popular dance style of the quadrille. It’s a decidedly French thing to undertake, and while Fauré and Messager were admirers of Wagner’s music, they clearly were not in the master’s thrall. Pianists Schlosberg and Suggs (a triple threat that one: bass, piano, accordion on these Club Concerts) gave virtuosically insouciant readings of these delightful pieces, offering up their own choreography akin to the Keystone Cops as they switched places at the keyboard between movements.

Their playing was perfectly in sync from beginning to end, especially difficult in the case of four hand piano music. They gave just the right amount of playful, Gallic sarcasm to the quadrilles – this music was a friendly jab by two admirers of Wagner’s music, not an outright attack – and the performance reflected this perfectly. In the end, Suggs even gave a bow to his lonely double bass, which had been sitting at the foot of the piano the entire time.

David Shifrin came to the stage (bearing three clarinets) along with his protégé from Yale, Ashley William ‘Pants’ Smith (with two clarinets) and pianist Schlosberg (one piano) to play Schlosberg’s brand-new arrangement of themes from Giacomo Puccini’s great opera La Boheme. Schlosberg said La Boheme in Ten Minutes actually took about 15 minutes to perform, because he couldn’t bear to leave out any of the themes in the first two acts. It was a tour de force of bel canto clarinet playing, and in a piano evocation of a full operatic pit orchestra. It was especially wonderful to watch Shifrin listen to his pupil as he played his big Mimi aria, and the smile playing over his face at a particularly beautiful turn of phrase. At times, the two players’ sounds were nearly indistinguishable from one another as they passed notes back and forth. Choreography almost reared its head in this performance, too, with each clarinetist taking applause with elaborate bows and curtsies ensuing. After the big arias from the first two acts, an abrupt, Deus ex machina transition to the final Death Scene in act three brought the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Shifrin, Schlosberg and Smith at Alberta Rose. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shifrin, Schlosberg and Pants at Alberta Rose. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The final piece, a Quartetto in B-flat for four winds and piano, is 19th century Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s spoof on his own brand of bel canto opera. Each instrument takes a role that would be found in such an opera: the flute is the coloratura soprano, the E-flat clarinet plays the lyric tenor, the oboe the mezzo-soprano, and the B-flat clarinet the baritone. It was a frothy, effervescent confection of a piece — barely a trifle —but a most fitting light dessert for a concert rich with operatic set pieces.

Renewing the Audience

Now in its third season, the Club Series seems to be finding its legs and becoming more sure of what it is and what it aims to do. As was particularly evident on the final night’s concert, bringing high art (and some not-so-high art) out of the rule-governed, etiquette-encased standard concert venues seems to be de-ossifying the audiences, both in terms of age and attitude.

“The Club concerts are as much about helping our current audience experience the new, as they are about attracting new audience,” said CMNW’s new executive director, Peter Bilotta. “When we invite current audiences to experience different music in new ways, we are re-new-ing them – that is, expanding their interest in, acceptance of and enthusiasm for different musical experiences.  This is as important as attracting new audiences because by doing this, we are creating a more flexible and nimble model that will both better serve current audiences, but also an artistic environment that will be more welcoming to new and younger audiences.” If one might pardon the expression, this series is as much about teaching old dogs new tricks as getting young puppies’ butts in seats.

The use of young, articulate, and fearsomely talented young Protégé artists also seems to work to break down barriers between audience and performer, as does an emcee who can interview the performers, field questions from the audience, and encourage a more free-wheeling concert experience. The thematic element of each concert has potential, most effectively reached in concert with the venue in the opening concert at Jimmy Mak’s, and in the operatic elements of the final concert at the Alberta Rose Theater. Only the middle concert at Doug Fir, vaguely titled Musical Journey, failed to hold together under its premise, though all the other elements worked quite effectively together. It will be exciting to see which performers return, who the newcomers will be, and what new venues and themes will be explored in next year’s Club Series. It will also be interesting to see if the audience demographic holds steady, or ages down as the series (paradoxically) matures. Either way, it will be a fun ride, one that I will enjoy taking again.

Charles Noble is assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony, member of the Arnica String Quartet and Third Angle New Music, and, in what little spare time he has left, writes a popular blog on being a classical musician.

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